The Minority in Congress

Loyal Opposition or Deliberate Roadblock?

“Republicans have chosen slogans and symbolism over substantive proposals,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) at a Center for American Progress Action Fund event Monday. Hoyer spoke at the event about congressional Republicans’ “lockstep opposition” to working with Democrats on crafting and passing major pieces of legislation this year that deal with serious challenges facing the country, including health care, climate change, and the economic stimulus. This stubbornness has earned Republicans—who are the minority party in Congress—the nickname “the party of no.”

Hoyer listed several examples of Republican obstructionism this year. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) was quoted as saying that his party’s approach to the president’s agenda was going to be to “just say no.” Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) read a 300-page amendment to the House clean-energy and climate bill in June to delay a vote. And earlier this month Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) circulated a “how-to” guide to all his Republican colleagues that outlined how Republicans can obstruct and hold up needed health care reforms in the Senate.

What makes this obstructionism worse, said Hoyer, is that Republicans aren’t putting forth any ideas of their own. Instead, they’re spending all of their energy criticizing Democrats and the president. Hoyer approached his friend and colleague Rep. Roy Blount (R-MO) and asked him for alternatives to the health care legislation the House passed last month. Blount didn’t offer Hoyer anything.

The Democrats may view the Republicans’ pigheaded strategy as benefitting them by causing the Republicans to be viewed as unproductive and negative. But Hoyer said “that is not good for Congress or our nation’s future.”

“When Congress doesn’t have two parties talking, less substance is debated openly,” Hoyer explained. Power devolves from Congress toward the Federal Reserve, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the courts. And the divisiveness does the public a disservice since people expect their representatives to do something about the issues they’ve deemed important, such as entitlement programs, out-of-control health care spending, and climate change.

Just because a party is in the minority doesn’t mean they have to unequivocally oppose everything the majority does. A “history of constructive minorities shows how much we should expect and demand of them,” Hoyer said. He pointed to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, when President Lyndon B. Johnson reached across the aisle to Senator Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-IL), who helped form a coalition to pass the bill and wrote parts of it. A more recent example is Senator Edward Kennedy’s (D-MA) push to help pass President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act in 2001.

Hoyer went on to say that, “I have not just talked this talk—I have walked it.” He has worked with Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) on the Help America Vote Act and with Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) on the Americans with Disabilities Act, among others.

Hoyer thought pressure from the public and within the Republican party itself could overcome the deadlock in Congress. “The rank and file of the Republican party is not comfortable with ‘the party of no,’” he said, and the public expects lawmakers to “engage constructively.” The pressures facing the nation at times prevail over the pressures that divide it—this was true when House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton balanced the budget in the late 1990s.

Republicans were able to step up earlier this year, as well. Hoyer highlighted the Republicans who voted for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February. “There are still those willing to act,” he said.


Center for American Progress Action Fund, 1333 H St. NW, 10th Floor, Washington, DC, 20005